As the Hearts end emptied at Hampden, Robbie Neilson’s devastated players dropped to the turf after an extra-time defeat by Rangers denied them a Scottish Cup triumph to cap a successful season.
Just over 12 months ago, the Tynecastle club won the Scottish Championship. Now, they have finished their first campaign back in the top flight comfortably as Scotland’s third force and have European group-stage football on the horizon next term.
Hampden heartache could sour a hugely impressive season for Neilson, but his group can take huge encouragement into the summer as they look to build.
“We’re obviously disappointed,” the Hearts manager said. “We have to take this on the chin, move forward and reflect on what’s actually been a very good season. We just couldn’t take that final wee step.
“We now need to build, get closer to the Old Firm and get into the Europa League – but we are at the start of it now.”
How do they replace Souttar?
Hearts boast quality in every area of the pitch. Even with first-choice right wing-back Michael Smith and influential midfielder Beni Baningime missing, their starting XI at Hampden highlighted that squad depth.
Through director of football Joe Savage, the Tynecastle club have made astute deals and, with most key players under contract, an overhaul isn’t required. However, there are a couple of issues that have to be addressed when the window opens.
John Souttar’s departure to Rangers leaves a huge void. The Scotland cap made his first start in almost three months in Saturday’s final, but still looked peerless in defence.
It took 94 minutes – and a stunning Ryan Jack strike – for Rangers to break down a stubborn defense with Souttar at the heart of it. If they didn’t know before, the Ibrox players will certainly know now the caliber of new team-mate they are getting.
Only one top-flight defender – Dundee United’s Charlie Mulgrew – boasted a better blocks-per-90min ratio this term (1.35), while Souttar’s ability on the ball will also be sorely missed.
In Toby Sibbick, who returned to the club from Barnsley on a permanent deal in January, they may have a ready-made replacement, but they are big boots to fill.
Can Hearts extend Simms’ stay?
Another priority must be acquiring the permanent services of Ellis Simms, or at least extending the Everton striker’s loan deal.
The 21-year-old, who caused the Rangers defense problems throughout, has seven goals in 15 games since his January move. His power and presence, and his budding relationship with Liam Boyce, has been a key cog in a fine season for Hearts.
And he might have made himself a hero had he not diverted a cross against an upright in the early stages at Hampden.
“The big man has been outstanding,” Neilson said of Simms. “Some loan players we’ll try to get again, but it’s out of our control.
“The rest of the squad are here and it’s about adding to it now. We have a number of targets we’re trying to get, hopefully we’ll get them in.”
Can European finances cement third?
Hearts’ third-place finish, plus progression to the Scottish Cup final, ensures they will enter Europa League qualifying at the play-off round.
It will be a tough task to navigate past that but, even if they lose, they will fall into the Conference League and become the first non-Old Firm side since Aberdeen in 2008 to play European group-stage football.
Participation in that earns a club over £2m, with TV revenue, gate receipts and further bonuses potentially doubling that.
With that added cash, and more shrewd transfer business, Hearts can aim to cement their place as Scotland’s ‘best of the rest’ next term, and perhaps look to reduce the gap between themselves and Glasgow’s top two.
“Hearts fans can be proud of their team,” said former Hearts winger Neil McCann on Sportscene. “I think Robbie Neilson has been backed, but is it worth the risk to back him some more now with group-stage football confirmed?”